A couple years back, I wrote a dissertation on Heidegger and videogames. This was, from the outset, a contradictory endeavor. Heidegger would not have liked videogames.
Already in his lifetime, Heidegger did not like the cultural changes brought about by newly emerging digital technologies. “Cybernetics transforms language into an exchange of news,” he wrote in 1972, the very year Nolan Bushnell debuted Pong. “The arts become regulated-regulating instruments of information.”[i]
Moreover, Heidegger wasn’t big on moving-image culture, in general. He had no particular love for the cinema, which he saw as sapping our sense of the wondrous (das Er-Staunen, Heidegger’s translation of the Greek θαυμαστόν) in lived experience. “We might think in passing of all the extraordinary things the cinema must offer continually,” he writes, “what is new every day and never happened before becomes something habitual and always the same.” The uncommon acquires an “insidious habituality.” Genuine wondrousness is supplanted by manufactured spectacle.[ii]
In titling this category, I fought against a perverse desire for maximal irony: I didn’t call it “wondrousness.” I wanted to, though. Absent the burden of context, “wonder” is precisely the word I would use to describe the feeling these games provoke in me.
I chickened out, though. I went with the word “delight,” instead.
My goodness. It’s been awhile since I’ve done a non-silly post. The new job has kept me busy, and on top of that I have made a real push to catch up on games released in 2017, now that we have passed the year’s halfway point. This latter task has given me plenty to mull over, and while I’m not yet prepared to write longer critical thoughts on the games in question, I thought I would collect some “quick takes,” as a way of priming the pump.
I still have a substantial backlog of big releases from 2017. I have not yet played Nier: Automata (PlatinumGames, 2017), or RiME (Tequila Works, 2017). I’m making my way through Resident Evil 7: biohazard (Capcom, 2017) right now. And although I recently bought Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017), I’m afraid that my 2012-built PC might not run it smoothly, and have been putting off installing it.
I have, though, found the time to play over a dozen other games released in the past six months. Thoughts below are listed in order of the release date of the game. I’ll set up links in this page if and when I write fuller pieces on any of these games.
Earlier this week, I sat down with some friends to play David OReilly’s Everything (2017). We were all suitably hyped, and ready for an evening of being different things while chuckling over the political indefensibility of object-oriented ontology. (Yes, really. We’re those people.)
But our evening hit a snag. Somewhere along the line, in our first playthrough, beginning as a cougar, we encountered a weird bug. One of the little “gain a new ability” thought bubbles failed to pop up in the environment. No matter how far we traveled, or how many objects’ thoughts we listened to, we simply could not unlock the ability to scale up or down into bigger or smaller entities. We were doomed to be a cougar. (Or, cougars, rather. We were able to expand our ranks, and become about a dozen cougars, rolling across the rocky landscape. But being a dozen rolling cougars is small consolation in a game that promises that you can be, well, everything.) For 75 minutes, we wailed at the screen. “I thought you could be lint particles and galaxies and stuff!”
We tried, to no avail, to look up walkthroughs to Everything. Everywhere we looked, we found glowing reviews of how chill the game was, how it allowed you to sit back and let the experience of being everything wash over you. We couldn’t fathom how we got stuck in a game with no real objectives. To pour salt in the wound, the game seemed to be actively mocking us. “As long as you keep moving, in any direction you choose,” thought a tree, “that will take you where you need to go.” “Over time,” thought a rock, “you might find there’s no right or wrong path to take here.” We were seriously stuck, and the only feedback we were getting were Zen aphorisms that told us to take it easy and not worry so much.
Eventually, we deleted our save file and started over. Thankfully, this solved the problem, and we spent the rest of the evening enraptured. But it did get me thinking about the trickiness presented by purposefully inscrutable game design.
2017 marks the year of animator David OReilly’s return to to the medium of videogames, following up on his strange and serene digital-art-toy-screensaver-thing Mountain (2014). His new game, Everything, released on PS4 on March 21st, and releases on Windows, Mac and Linux this Friday.
The game’s title, Everything, is also the game’s premise: It is a game about everything. Specifically, it is a game in which players can be everything, switching at will from trees to koalas to rocks to quarks and back. I haven’t had a chance to sit down with it yet—I suspect I’ll make time for it once it’s out for PC—but I did want to take the advent of its multi-platform release as an opportunity to muse on this premise’s history in gaming.
Everything may be the first game that explicitly promises to allow us to be everything, but games have previously offered the ability for us to step into the role of quite a lot of things, including a surprising range of inanimate objects. “The child plays at being not only a shopkeeper or teacher,” wrote Walter Benjamin, “but also a windmill and a train.”[i] Games have proved to be a continuing outlet for this childhood animist fantasy—why, in just a couple weeks’ time, we’re going to be able to play as a coffee mug!
Join me, won’t you, in a breezy tour of some of the stranger things games have let us be.